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Oyster 'gardening' restores reefs after hurricane

In Texas, neighbors experiment with oyster gardening to help rebuild reefs damaged by Hurricane Ike.

By Cindy HorswellHouston Chronicle/AP / November 3, 2009

Marvin Peyton, left, and Greg Tate volunteer in a project called "oyster gardening" where mesh bags full of oyster shells are hung off their fishing piers, in San Leon, Texas. Oysters and other wildlife are then able to grow and be used to help reseed the bay.

Michael Paulson /Houston Chronicle/AP

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SAN LEON, Texas

Below the choppy gray waters of a small peninsula jutting into Galveston Bay, 200 mesh bags dangle, filled with shucked oyster shells and a whole lot of hope.

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Six families, who each have bay-front homes with long wooden-plank piers, stuffed the bags with oyster shells. They then tied the bags to the newly rebuilt fishing piers and dropped them into the water.

These families are experimenting with "oyster gardening" — using old shells to provide the hard surface upon which oyster larvae can attach and grow.

This is one of several creative projects, paid for by federal and state grants, under way to restore a small portion of the 8,000 acres of oyster reefs killed when Hurricane Ike buried them in sediment a year ago.

Oysters are important to the Texas economy as a food and are also efficient filters that remove contaminants from the water as they feed. A single oyster filters 50 gallons a day.

The San Leon project has promoted a kind of communal bonding, as these neighbors try to reclaim the life they knew before Ike submerged their peninsula under several feet of water.

When Edwina and Marvin Peyton learned about oyster gardening from a Texas Parks and Wildlife e-mail, they were thrilled. They were just about finished restoring their home and 100-foot pier, and now there might actually be something they could contribute to the bay's restoration.

"It's been very educational," said Mr. Peyton, as he pulled a mesh bag onto his pier to examine it. "I've had to learn about the sex life of oysters. Something I hadn't taken into consideration before."

Oysters, for instance, can change their sex during stressful times so that they can produce more eggs. The eggs are fertilized in the water and then the larvae swim around until they find a hard surface where they can plant their muscular foot and grow.

Mr. Peyton pointed to the inside lining of a shucked shell where a juvenile oyster had cemented itself. It had grown from a brownish spot the size of a match head to almost 2 inches in diameter.

"If you don't know what you're looking for, you might not see anything but dead old shells," he says.

But oysters are not the only things growing inside there. Numerous tiny crabs and shrimp the size of a thumbnail scurry from the bag laid on the pier. About every two weeks, San Leon residents must raise the bags, rinse them and leave them in the sun to get rid of predators that might eat the babies.